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Highly Reviewed Recordings

November 16 - November 29, 2011

RIISAGER, K.: Symphonic Edition, Vol. 1 (Aarhus Symphony, Holten) - Symphony No. 1 / Danish Pictures
(Dacapo: 8.226146)

RIISAGER, K.: Symphonic Edition, Vol. 1 (Aarhus Symphony, Holten) - Symphony No. 1 / Danish Pictures

Knudage Riisager was a born orchestral composer, and he seemed to understand exactly what kind of writing best suited his natural proclivities. The occasional sudden dissonance, sardonic brass commentary, bright woodwinds, and high-lying violin ostinatos all suggest comedy, and in the four overtures, especially Klods Hans (translated here as "Jack the Dullard") that's exactly what we get. You might think of Riisager as the Danish Malcolm Arnold, without the bitterness and melodrama. The music is rhythmically vivacious, full of good tunes, and wonderfully scored, even without special coloristic effects. Right from Riisager's Op. 1, the overture Erasmus Montanus, you can hear in the brass chording his splendid feel for sonority.

The First Symphony is a perky, three-movement piece that contemporary critics described as Stravinsky mixed with Puccini, but to modern ears it sounds like neither. It is indeed cast clearly in a neo-classical mode, and there's not a shred of obvious Scandinavian sound--amazing for the date of composition (1925), when Nielsen's influence was strongest in Danish music. It's not perfect--the outer movements could be better sustained--but the sheer charm of the work's ideas carries the day. The performances in this first volume of a projected series of Riisager's symphonic works are first-rate, and so is the engineering. Bo Holten and his players clearly relish the music's color and energy, and I can only welcome this release with great enthusiasm and high hopes for the series as a whole.

David Hurwitz,

IRGENS-JENSEN, L.: Symphony in D minor / Air / Passacaglia (Bournemouth Symphony, Engeset)
(Naxos: 8.572312)

IRGENS-JENSEN, L.: Symphony in D minor / Air / Passacaglia (Bournemouth Symphony, Engeset)

Ludvig Irgens-Jensen's Passacaglia of 1928, music of unaffected grandeur and nobility, is one of the monuments of the Scandinavian orchestral repertoire. It receives a powerful performance from Bjarte Engeset and the Bournemouth Symphony, particularly when the brass weigh in with the concluding chorale. The work has been recorded before, and quite well too (there's a fine version on Simax coupled to the same composer's lovely song cycle Japanese Spring), but certainly this performance ranks with the best available.

The real significance of this release, though, lies in the premiere recording of the Symphony in its original, three-movement form. It's easy to understand why Irgens-Jensen had his doubts. The first two movements follow a logical progression from anxiety to a triumph similar in tone to the climax of the Passacaglia. The finale is a sometimes spooky, sometimes sardonic march of markedly Mahlerian character, and Irgens-Jensen might have felt that the quiet, equivocal ending reflected too much of the troubled times (1942) in which it was composed.

That said, the third movement strikes me as welcome, and emotionally necessary. The use of thematic recall adds structural balance to the work that it otherwise lacks, and the fact that the ending is not conventionally triumphant, in this day and age is not a mark against it. Most significantly, the movement contains some really powerful and evocative music, and it would be a terrible pity to sacrifice anything by a composer of this ability, one who wrote so few large-scale orchestral works. The performance is as fine as we have any right to expect, and the sonics are both rich and vivid. Might we look forward to a badly needed new version of the Partita Sinfonica from these same forces?

 David Hurwitz,, October 10, 2011

SHOSTAKOVICH, D.: String Quartets Nos. 5-8 / MYASKOVSKY, N.: String Quartet No. 13 (The Soviet Experience, Vol. 1) (Pacifica Quartet)
(Cedille: CDR90000-127)

SHOSTAKOVICH, D.: String Quartets Nos. 5-8 / MYASKOVSKY, N.: String Quartet No. 13 (The Soviet Experience, Vol. 1) (Pacifica Quartet)

Cedille certainly produces some of the smartest "concept" albums in the classical music business today, because the concept always seems to work musically. Now the Pacifica Quartet is one of the best chamber ensembles out there, as its Mendelssohn recordings for this same label attest. Even so, there's no dearth of fine Shostakovich cycles, from the Borodin Quartet to the Emerson. These performances, every bit as fine as those, would be excellent by themselves, but they do risk getting lost in the discographic shuffle. So it was an inspired idea to pair them in this series with other important works in the same medium by Shostakovich's contemporaries. I'm not sure if this adds up to a "Soviet Experience", whatever that is, but it does make for some great listening.

The four Shostakovich quartets offered here constitute the heart of the cycle, culminating in the incredibly popular (amazing because musically it's very sad) Eighth Quartet. In this latter work, the Pacifica Quartet finds a perfect balance between technical polish and raw intensity, nowhere more so than in the ferocious second movement. In Quartet No. 5, with its complex outer movements, the players pace the music with an unerring feeling for tension and relaxation. Even the slender Seventh, Shostakovich's shortest quartet, has an unusual measure of cogency and expressive depth.

Miaskovsky's Thirteenth Quartet, his last, is a splendid work: conservative to be sure, but so beautifully written. The scherzo, marked "Presto fantastico", displays a vast quantity of color and texture, but then the entire work belies the notion that the quartet medium tends toward the monochrome. The thematic invention is also surprisingly arresting for this composer; some of the symphonies seem bland in comparison. Once again, it would be difficult to imagine a finer performance, and the engineering allows the players' attractive sonority and well-balanced ensemble work to speak with total naturalness. A great start to a very promising series.

David Hurwitz,

HAYDN, J.: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 3 (Bavouzet) - Nos. 16, 29, 33, 42
(Chandos: CHAN10689)

HAYDN, J.: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 3 (Bavouzet) - Nos. 16, 29, 33, 42

If you've been collecting this series you won't need any recommendation from me; if you haven't been, you ought to start. Once again Jean-Efflam Bavouzet's Haydn sweeps the field, at least on a modern instrument. He ornaments lavishly but always intelligently, and as before he omits codas or cadences before the second of the second-half repeats. This is such a smart and musically sensible thing to do that you can't help but wonder if it was one of those "authentic" customs that was so obvious that no composer of the day bothered to notate or even so much as mention it.

The four sonatas on this disc have been arranged around the splendid work in C minor, one of Haydn's greatest and most important keyboard pieces. No. 29 in E-flat major also is a grand work, with a profoundly moving central slow movement, while the two sonatas on the other side of No. 33 are lighter in character, but no less rich in invention. The entire sequence makes an ideal program for continuous listening, and Chandos' sonics are terrific. Another great release in a standard-setting series.

David Hurwitz,, October 24, 2011

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